The Givers: Wealth, power and philanthropy in a new gilded age

Reviewed by Ingrid Srinath, Ashoka University, India

What are the consequences of surging philanthropic resources and ambition when public spending is falling and disillusion with democracy is growing? It’s interesting to contrast the US perspective on that question which David Callahan’s book gives, with the experience of an emerging economy like India.

In the US, The Givers sees ‘hyperagency’ – the confidence that accompanies great wealth, especially wealth acquired by solving wicked or vast problems – combining with the emotional rush that charitable giving provides, to produce a quest for game-changing ‘big bets’. This trend is increasingly apparent in India too, where it is easier to gain support from philanthropists for big, novel ideas than for incremental change and proven models. As Callahan points out, it’s not just that there is so much new philanthropic money but that it’s impatient, as billionaires get younger and seek to give while living. Again, the Indian experience echoes this. Asked recently about succession planning to his operating foundation, a major Indian philanthropist said he planned to focus all his resources on what could be accomplished in his lifetime.

But there are differences, too. In the US, these ‘super-citizens’ see the possibility of bypassing political oversight and democratic accountability and converting wealth into power in support of their causes of choice. In India, and other emerging economies, new wealth is still timid about taking on ‘political’ issues, putting its credence instead into building models that government will take to scale.

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